Worth The Effort

The Panoramic Option • Photo Contest Lottery

Balloon Classic. Lepp captured this panorama of a scene from the Colorado Springs Balloon Classic using a handheld Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM lens at 50mm. The composited panorama consists of five vertical images captured at ƒ/13 and ISO 400. The panorama was possible due to the slow movement of the balloons and speedy capture of the five overlapping images. A small amount of correction was necessary in Photoshop to match the ripples on the water from image to image.

The Panoramic Option

Q I don’t recall anyone at OP discussing shooting panoramas from a moving platform. What techniques can you pass on that will allow a handheld method for panoramas from both moving and stationary positions?
R. Behrstock
Via email

A The potential for capturing a panorama is almost always present; for the most part, we see in panoramic mode. While consistently good results are best achieved from a stationary tripod base, that’s not always possible. What if you’re not carrying a tripod, or if you’re shooting from a moving platform, such as a boat or plane? If the subject is compelling, it’s worth giving another method a try.

Photographing a panorama by handholding the camera isn’t that difficult. First, identify a stationary point of reference, such as the horizon, to line up your captures; if the panorama is vertical, find something on the left or right to serve as a constant point of reference. Then, it’s important to rotate the camera around the center of the lens as you capture the sequence; that is, keep the camera in the same place, as if it were mounted on a tripod, and pivot it to reframe each image in the sequence. In your framing, give yourself some extra room around the main subject, either above or below in a horizontal pano, or to the sides of a vertical, because you’ll need to crop the assembled pano to square it up.

Sometimes I use an aerial mapping technique to capture a handheld panorama from a unique perspective. It’s the same concept as used by satellites to photograph the earth below. The photographer/camera is moving before the subject at a consistent speed or pace, and the image sequence is captured at regular intervals, with each capture overlapping the previous by about 50%. I’ve used this technique to capture panoramic landscapes from an airplane, or from a boat moving parallel to the scene, but you can apply it on the ground, as well. Maintain a consistent distance from the subject as you move along before it, stopping regularly to capture images with 50% overlap. This works best if you can move back from the subject enough that a medium telephoto can be used. The edge distortion of wide-angles makes them hard to stitch.

Let’s say you’re in the bow of an advancing boat and the scene cries out for a panoramic capture. Lens choice matters. A wide-angle probably won’t work very well, as you’ll be imaging the moving water directly below your position, and distortion at the edges makes matching and stitching the frames much more difficult. Focal lengths from a normal lens through a medium telephoto will work best in this situation. Overlap the captures by about 50%, and take the series very quickly so that the repositioning of the camera caused by the movement of your platform, the boat, only minutely changes the composition of the panoramic image in the distance. Eliminate the foreground, because it’s changing much more rapidly as you advance. Panoramic sequences captured in this way should merge together without significant difficulty.

Changing from a single-image format to a panorama really is about understanding the principles involved and implementing them, whether from a tripod, handheld or even from a moving platform. The advantages of the panoramic format are higher resolution, more detail and larger prints; while it may not work every time, it’s always worth the effort.

Photo Contest Lottery

Q Is it worth my time and money to enter nature photo contests? Some have excellent prizes associated with them, even money, but what are the odds of winning?
J. Fitzgerald
Via email

A There are two essential questions to ask before you submit your images to a photography contest: “What’s in it for them?” (the contest sponsors), and “What’s in it for me?” Consider the following factors:

• Is the sponsor a reputable organization, with a strong record for upholding principles that you share? Would you want your name and images to be associated with that organization’s mission?

• Is there an entry fee? Recognize that, with few exceptions, a portion of any entry fee will be diverted to funding the sponsoring organization’s activities. Your participation in the contest is part of their fund-raising strategy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; participating in a photo contest and thereby helping to fund an organization that’s consistent with your principles of volunteerism, philanthropy and/or activism can be a very satisfying experience.

• What image rights are you granting? Note carefully the contest terms and conditions. These terms may be in conflict with other usage of the image you’ve already granted. Some contest sponsors claim ownership of winning images, or even of all submissions. If there’s an entry fee coupled with relinquishing the rights to your submission, then you’re essentially paying them to use your image, in any way and for as long as they want.

• What’s your motivation for entering any particular contest? “For the money” isn’t a good answer, as there are few winners. “For the exposure” is a good answer, especially if placing well in the competition gives you a sense of validation, puts your work in the company of other accomplished photographers and publicizes your work in a context that makes you proud (being published in Outdoor Photographer, for example). And, as discussed, participation can be especially rewarding when the sponsoring organization is one that you strongly support.

The odds of winning are, of course, highly variable, depending on the number of entries, the number of prizes, the abilities and predilections of the judges, and the sponsor’s objectives. I’ve judged many, many nature photo contests, from local to international in scope, and I’m always amazed by the creativity and skill demonstrated by entrants. My fellow judges and I may not completely agree on which images are the best, and that’s where subjective judgments come into the mix; it’s what I like to think of as the “pull” of the image, that is, how intensively it calls to the viewer.

My colleague Wendy Shattil (DancingPelican.com) is a top-notch organizer of photographic contests for nature-oriented nonprofits, including the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Showcase and the Audubon Society of Greater Denver’s Share the View competition. Wendy won the Grand Prize of the most prestigious wildlife photography contest in the world, the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy.html). For the purposes of this column, Wendy has shared some statistics from recent contests in which I participated as a judge.

The 2015 Share the View contest (denveraudubon.contestvenue.com) received 1,850 entries from around the world; 1,350 images made it to the judges: Miriam Stein, who has worked as a photo editor for the National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy, among other nature and conservation-based organizations; John Nuhn, photo director at the National Wildlife Federation for 34 years; and yours truly. The entry fee of $10 per image, or 6 for $50, funds a prize pool of $2,500 for the top 10 finishers, with a grand prize of $1,000, and supports the organization’s activities, including promotion of the 250 highest-rated images.

The NANPA Showcase is of very high quality. The contest typically generates about 2,500 entries. Each NANPA member may submit one free entry; additional submissions are $10 each, or 6 for $50. Of these, about 10% receive recognition, $3,400 in prize money is shared among 15 winners with five top prizes of $300, and the best 100 images are featured on the NANPA website (nanpa.org).

The Windland Smith Rice International Awards Competition is another highly respected contest. Organized by Nature’s Best Photography (naturesbestphotography.com), the website reports some 25,000 entries are received each year. Photographers may enter up to 20 images for $25, and the winners are honored by publication in the Special Collector’s Editions of the magazine and exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. No prize money, but winning sure can make you (and your mom) proud!

Learn about George Lepp’s workshops and seminars at GeorgeLepp.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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